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I am minded to write something about both utilitarianism and human rights as a consequence of watching the news the other night. Two separate but linked news articles struck a chord. The first about police being heavy handed in applying the emergency laws surrounding the restricting of movement and the second about the emergency laws being passed to suspend jury trials in Scotland. Both have an impact in respect of human rights.
Turning to the first, the complaint is that the police across England and Wales have in some cases been disproportionate in their dealing with the public when attempting to manage the restrictions around movement. The example shown was the uploading of videos onto social media depicting people walking around the Peak District. The captions simply asked whether the trip was necessary.
The government guidance is pretty clear regarding staying at home but perhaps is a little less clear about travelling to a location to partake in exercise. I must admit though I am a little perplexed at the accusation of heavy handedness. The Human Rights Act 1998 provides for a right to life and it has been held that the government and its agencies have a positive obligation to facilitate this. There are of course some caveats as it would be almost impossible to ensure this in all circumstances. There is no doubt that people are dying from Covid-19. The approach to enforce social distancing, presently predominantly through information and the reliance on responsibility and good will, seems to be the only current viable approach to combating this killer. The curtailment of some Human Rights is it seems necessary to ensure the greater good and to preserve life. The latter of course is a primary duty that most police officers would recognise. The greater good for the many is it seems compatible with a key principle of human rights.
Turning to the second news article. The right to a fair trial is a fundamental human right. The suspension of a jury may be against longstanding legal principles but, the Human Rights Act does not specify that the trial should be before a jury, merely an independent judge. The argument could be made that trials should be suspended but this might be impinging on rights in respect of defendants being held in custody awaiting trial. The convening of a jury would flout the rationale behind current legislation in place to enforce social distancing and would quite simply be contrary to obligations to protect life.
The notions of utilitarianism are often viewed as in conflict with individual rights and therefore the Human Rights Act. Many see the two as incompatible, one relates to the many and the other the individual. This argument though fails to have vision, it is not truly consequentialist. Human Rights are utilitarian in their very nature. Is it not to the greater good that people have a right to life, a right to freedom of association, a right to a fair trail to name but a few? Should it not be considered that every individual case that is examined under the Human Rights Act has consequences for the many as well as the individual? A breach of the Act if unchallenged opens the way for abuses by governments and their agencies, it is utilitarian in nature, it is there for the greater good, not just the individual circumstances that are being examined. But should we also not consider that there is a need to prioritise rights, particularly in the circumstances the country and world finds itself in? Some parts of the Act are in clearly on occasions, incompatible with others. Curtailment of some freedoms and rights is necessary for the greater good but more importantly, it is necessary to save lives, perhaps even the life of the individual complaining of the curtailment. We can but hope that amidst all of this, good sense prevails.
I’ve been thinking a lot about equality recently. It is a concept bandied around all the time and after all who wouldn’t want equal life opportunities, equal status, equal justice? Whether we’re talking about gender, race, sexual orientation, disability, age, marital status. religion, sex or maternity (all protected characteristics under the Equality Act, 2010) the focus is apparently on achieving equality. But equal to what? If we’re looking for equivalence, how as a society do we decide a baseline upon which we can measure equality? Furthermore, do we all really want equality, whatever that might turn out to be?
Arguably, the creation of the ‘Welfare State’ post-WWII is one of the most concerted attempts (in the UK, at least) to lay foundations for equality. The ambition of Beveridge’s (1942) Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services was radical and expansive. Here is a clear attempt to address, what Beveridge (1942) defined as the five “Giant Evils” in society; ‘squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease’. These grand plans offer the prospect of levelling the playing field, if these aims could be achieved, there would be a clear step toward ensuring equality for all. Given Beveridge’s (1942) background in economics, the focus is on numerical calculations as to the value of a pension, the cost of NHS treatment and of course, how much members of society need to contribute to maintain this. Whilst this was (and remains, even by twenty-first century standards) a radical move, Beveridge (1942) never confronts the issue of equality explicitly. Instead, he identifies a baseline, the minimum required for a human to have a reasonable quality of life. Of course, arguments continue as to what that minimum might look like in the twenty-first century. Nonetheless, this ground-breaking work means that to some degree, we have what Beveridge (1942) perceived as care ‘from cradle to grave’.
Unfortunately, this discussion does not help with my original question; equal to what? In some instances, this appears easier to answer; for example, adults over the age of 18 have suffrage, the age of sexual consent for adults in the UK is 16. But what about women’s fight for equality, how do we measure this? Equal pay legislation has not resolved the issue, government policy indicates that women disproportionately bear the negative impact of austerity. Likewise, with race equality, whether you look at education, employment or the CJS there is a continuing disproportionate negative impact on minorities. When you consider intersectionality, many of these inequalities are heaped one on top of the other. Would equality be represented by everyone’s life chances being impacted in the same way, regardless of how detrimental we know these conditions are? Would equality mean that others have to lose their privilege, or would they give it up freely?
Unfortunately, despite extensive study, I am no closer to answering these questions. If you have any ideas, let me know.
Beveridge, William, (1942), Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services, (HMSO: London)
The Equality Act, 2010, (London: TSO)
Upskirting for anyone who has not come across the term is the act of taking unauthorised pictures under a skirt or kilt to capture images of the crotch area and sometimes genitalia. It tends to happen in crowded public places making it difficult to spot when it is happening. The resulting images are often distributed on the internet, usually interlinked with pornographic or fetish sites and present a multitude of moral and legal issues surrounding privacy, decency and consent. In some instances, the victim is identifiable from the image but in many they are not and are often unaware that such images even exist. This type of behaviour is not new but the development of technology, most notably camera phones has facilitated the practice as has the ability to share these images online. In England and Wales there is currently no specific legislation banning such action because voyeurism only covers private spaces and outraging public decency requires a witness. As such, when victims of upskirting come forward there is currently little scope for prosecution although some successful prosecutions have occurred under the offence of outraging public decency.
Gina Martin, a freelance writer and victim of upskirting launched a campaign to get upskirting recognised as a specific crime and punishable under the Sexual Offences Act. This campaign has gained considerable momentum both publicly and politically and in March 2018 the Voyeurism (Offence) Bill was presented to the House of Commons. The bill was blocked by the objections of one MP on the grounds that there had been a ‘lack of debate’ and thus a breach of parliamentary procedure. The backlash to this objection was interesting, rather than acknowledging that this is a serious issue worthy of parliamentary debate a humiliating and somewhat bullying approach was taken in the form of ‘pants bunting’ being hung outside of his Commons office. While I might not agree with some of the past actions of this MP his argument that new laws need to be debated if we (the UK) are to stand up for freedom and democracy is an important one. Upskirting is a serious breach of privacy and decency and therefore needs proper debate if the resulting legislation is going to be more than a knee-jerk reaction to public outrage. Such legislation often results in the need for multiple revisions in order for it to efficiency and effectively tackle such behaviour. For example, the proposed burden of proof in the original bill alongside the limited scope of the bill would likely have limited prosecutions rather than facilitating them. Unfortunately, with just three months between the original bill and the revised Voyeurism (Offences) (No.2)) Bill, which was successfully introduced to the House of Commons in June 2018, the extent to which sufficient informed debate has occurred remains questionable.
 See the comments by Clare McGlynn (professor at Durham University) in Sabbagh and Ankel (2018) Call for upskirting bill to include ‘deepfake’ pornography ban. The Guardian [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/21/call-for-upskirting-bill-to-include-deepfake-pornography-ban. [Accessed: 17 August 2018].